I am trying to narrow down a phenomenon that I have witnessed in our society that I am going to refer to as cognitive intolerance. Strange as it is, I think that students in the secular humanities possess this just as much as the Trump supporters that they oppose. I also think that I have been susceptible to it as well, even though I have distanced myself from my secular humanities training and have never been a Trump supporter. I suffered from cognitive intolerance as a result of reading exclusively antiracist and decolonial literature over the course of several years while teaching at an antiracist school district. Let’s just say I was drinking the Kool-Aid.
Karl Jaspers wrote about how when we are adjusting to new worldviews as a society, we will go through a stage of growing pains as we labor in search of a new framework. I think that this happens often with the transition of presidential power in the United States. But it is also happening as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the cost of life as been drastically changed, with hundreds of thousands of Americans having needlessly died over the course of the last year. George Floyd’s murder and Chauvin’s subsequent conviction also proved paradigm-shifting.
My question is this: when will the growing pains stop? The song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is playing in my head as I write this.
Some of the pain of this era comes from overly educated people speaking with absolute confidence and conviction about things that really we don’t understand and that are out of our hands. I was just listening to a relative talking about Afghanistan, what Trump would have done differently than Biden, and how things would have been so much better if x, y, or z had happened. Because the comments weren’t about social justice movements or anti-racism or the NRA, I just listened to her comments without being triggered by them. I hadn’t yet consumed enough media and opinions from pundits and experts that would have allowed me to react with cognitive intolerance to her speculations and conjectures. I actually listened to her rather than filtering everything from a biased framework that despises conservative “ideology.”
I think if education wasn’t about indoctrination but rather about genuinely hearing other people’s sides and learning how to think for ourselves – in other words, if it was approached theologically rather than as a religious catechism – cognitive intolerance wouldn’t flourish the way that it is now. I’m getting whiplash going to anti-racist trainings one day and then reading City Journal on the negative consequences of wokeness and critical race theory on society the next day. Can’t we acknowledge that racism is an issue and that there are still vestiges of white supremacy in the United States, while also not becoming overly rigid and sweeping about what needs to be done about this as if every white person were a racist?
My deepest worry is that people are losing their capacity to have empathy for other perspectives and that the result will be devastating on the country. The United States is a mess right now. God help us. Kids are being taught theory rather than subjects and facts. On the other hand, facts are not communicable without a theoretical framework to organize them.
Is creative instruction a dying breed? Is creative and flexible activism and religious belief perishing the way it feels it is perishing? God help us.